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Alignment – Good or Bad?

My fridge magnet

I recently read this blog. In this article the author uses the terms “alignment” and “position” interchangeably, but when she gives an example of alignment, it’s more aptly describing “form” – as in a correct form during an exercise.

Now, that’s fine, but as someone who’s business is called Alignment REScue, I have a dog in this race, and if someone is maligning the term alignment (and this particular blog is hardly the first to do so – it’s been a kind of trend now for a while on social media I’ve noticed), then I need to weigh in, because people will look at my business name and assume I’m “this thing” when in fact, I’m not that thing.

So here’s my contribution to the “alignment: good or bad” trend. First of all, if you are going to discuss the merits of a term, it would be helpful, if not necessary, to define the term. This is something I learned from Katy Bowman. It’s helped immensely when two or more people are discussing something (Facebook is notorious for this!) when we first agree upon what we are discussing. When people are precise about what they are discussing, they often find they have an alignment of beliefs.

Definitions of “alignment”:
A position of agreement or alliance. See the previous paragraph, last sentence.
Arrangement in a straight line or in correct relative positions.

This second definition is how most people are using this term.

Here are some other possible definitions of the word, not from the Oxford dictionary:
When your outside behaviours match your inside beliefs.
I love this definition (something I heard Katy say once) because we all can relate to that. You know alcohol is bad for you, but you still have wine with dinner. You know walking is good for you, but still snag the closest parking spot when you can. Synonyms of the word alignment can include “balance,” “harmonious,” “accord.”

The relationship of parts to one another, their environment and gravity, to optimize their function with maximum efficiency and minimal damage.  This could pertain to your car’s tires or your knees.

When I am talking about Alignment, I’m not always talking about a static position, or an exercise form. It would be easy if you could just stand still and I could prod you into “alignment” via your body parts and the ground, but it would be more accurate to call this “posture” than “alignment.” When a client asks me “Well how should I walk then?” I don’t tell them they should walk with their feet in any particular alignment. Actually, something I say so often in class that my students will finish the sentence is “The best position for your joints is…?”

answer: “all the positions.”

So someone walking might think they should have their feet in a particular position (straight) but in fact, that is a sedentary position, and the best position for the 33 joints in your feet is experiencing all the positions they are capable of (which is an incalculable number). In a natural environment, and with an unshod foot, no footfall would experience the exact same surface, and the joints would naturally cycle through a wide variety of positions, leading to balanced musculature and harmonious use of all the structures of the foot–which would maximize efficiency and minimize damage such that no one part of the foot was used excessively, but all parts large and small were used at various times.

I think that most people talking about alignment are using it pertaining to a specific practice, such as yoga or weight training. And to me, that is a sedentary perspective. It’s implied that there is a right way and a wrong way (or a less right way) to do X movement. The argument against “alignment” is saying that if you only ever train the “right way” you won’t be training for the inevitable moment your knee falls in or your ankle turns. So if you are training a squat, you better train it in more than the correct alignment, so you can be prepared.

The last time I peed in the woods, I was not concerned about knee tracking or maintaining the lordotic curve of my lumbar spine. Rather I was concerned about whether I was facing uphill or down, had adequate cover, and something non-poisonous to wipe with. But when I was lifting a heavy boulder in my garden, I was a little more conscious about my “alignment.” Those examples are both squats, but squatting is a category, and the way you should squat is…all the positions. It’s the argument for cross training for all eventualities.

Not everyone has the ability or the entitlement to live in a way that affords a natural imposition on the body that results in all-body harmonious usage. Most (all) of us have to fake it in the studio or the gym, so training in various ways is necessary and good. In Restorative Exercise we call it “rainbow loads.”

So I think in this case the author of the blog and I are in agreement. However, she is calling alignment “arrangement in a straight line or in correct relative positions” such as knee over third toe, and if that isn’t happening, you are “out of alignment.” And I’m saying any position is alignment, it’s just a different alignment. And if you were to do one or the other exclusively, they would both be bad, because any one alignment is just a sedentary position. I think people in the yoga and training world are starting to notice that they have trained sedentary people with a sedentary perspective on how to “exercise.”

My biz cards

So in what way am I using the word alignment that gives it star billing on my business cards? Most bodies in today’s sedentary culture and unnatural environment are molded by habits, and literally by “casts” such as shoes, chairs, homes, sidewalks, cars, clothes. We move in such narrow ways because that’s the way we have developed. One of the things I do when I see someone for the first time, is to assess the relationship of their parts (their alignment) as defined by these casts and our narrow range of use throughout our lives. A position is not damaging in and of itself in that moment, otherwise training that rainbow load in that one position would “break” us. It’s not the position that’s the problem (all possible joint positions are inherently valuable if you were to cycle through them), it’s the duration and frequency and lack of variability that is the problem.

In this way, I can narrow down what this body in front of me is experiencing in sufficiency and what is in deficiency. And if we can add in even just a small amount of variability, we start to increase unique loads to the tissues, and hopefully break free of some of the casts and habits and eventually, start to align our behaviours to our beliefs. Alignment can be as simple as “what is preventing this person from accessing these movements” or as difficult as creating a world in which we can move and be moved.